Homily at Silverstream Priory
Feast of Saints Peter and Paul
29 June 2020
Now I know
One of the remarkable things about the Office and Mass of this feast of Saints Peter and Paul is that they are derived principally from the Acts of the Apostles. The Introit gives us the very words of Saint Peter after his delivery from prison by an Angel: “Now I know in very deed, that the Lord hath sent His angel, and hath delivered me out of the hand of Herod, and from all the expectation of the people of the Jews” Acts 12:11). Peter’s miraculous liberation was God’s answer to the prayer of the Church. “Peter therefore was kept in prison. But prayer was made without ceasing by the church unto God for him” (Acts 12:5). I have reflected on why these particular words of Saint Peter were chosen for the Introit of so solemn a feast, and not another of Saint Peter’s utterances as recorded in the Gospels.
Thou Art Peter
Of the five antiphons given for Day Hours, all but the fifth are taken from the Acts of the Apostles. The fifth antiphon is taken from the Gospel of the feast in the sixteenth chapter of Saint Matthew; it is Our Lord’s response to Peter’s confession of faith: “Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). This is the very text inscribed in monumental letters around the inside of the cupola at Saint Peter’s in Rome. The Benedictus Antiphon draws from the same source:
Whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven, said the Lord to Simon Peter. (Matthew 16:19)
The Church in Prayer for Peter
It seems to me that the choice of texts for today’s feast is intended, if not by the artisans of the liturgy, then surely by the Holy Ghost, to show us that even while the Church depends on Peter, Peter depends on the Church and, above all, on the prayer of the Church. “Prayer was made without ceasing by the church unto God for him” (Acts 12:5). Return for a moment to Saint Luke’s account of the Last Supper:
And the Lord said: Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren. (Luke 22: 31-32)
The Prayer of Christ for Peter
Peter is sustained by the prayer of Christ. Even so, in the grip of fear Peter failed—a kind of panic overcame him— and he denied his Lord three times. What then of the prayer of Christ? Why was Peter not preserved from the terrible sin of disowning his Lord? Was the prayer of Christ without effect? Did not Our Lord say before the resurrection of Lazarus at Bethany: “Father, I give thee thanks that thou hast heard me. And I knew that thou hearest me always” (John 11:41)? The fruit of the prayer of Jesus for Peter was not in Peter’s impeccability, but in Peter’s tears.
And the Lord turning looked on Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, as he had said: Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And Peter going out, wept bitterly. (Luke 22: 61-62)
It has often been so in the lives of the friends of Christ: Our Lord suffers his friends to experience weakness, to stumble, and even to fall. Where then is the efficacious grace of Christ? It is in the tears of his friends and in the reparation that, following Saint Peter, they make under the form of a confession of love.
When therefore they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter: Simon, son of John, lovest thou me more than these? He saith to him: Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee. He saith to him: Feed my lambs. He saith to him again: Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? He saith to him: Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee. He saith to him: Feed my lambs. He said to him the third time: Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved, because he had said to him the third time: Lovest thou me? And he said to him: Lord, thou knowest all things: thou knowest that I love thee. He said to him: Feed my sheep. (John 21:15-17)
A Lifetime Journey Anything But Linear
Saint Peter’s journey from the shore of Lake Genesareth—recall yesterday’s Gospel for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost—through the promises of Christ at Cesarea Philippi, and the washing of his feet in the Cenacle, and the assurance of the prayer of Christ on the night before He suffered, and the three-fold denial, and the shedding of bitter tears, and the three-fold confession of love, and his preaching in the power of the Holy Ghost after Pentecost, his imprisonment in Jerusalem, his miraculous liberation, and finally his ignominious execution at Rome under Nero, such a journey is disconcerting. To the eyes of human critics it appears anything but linear. It is a journey marked by breaks, falls, returnings, imprudent outbursts, tears, and new beginnings. What does not appear to the eyes of human critics is the efficacious prayer of Christ repairing Peter’s breaks, lifting Peter when he falls, welcoming Peter when he returns, silencing Peter’s outbursts, wiping Peter’s tears, and eliciting Peter’s reparation in a threefold confession of love. And what does not appear is the persevering prayer of the Church for Peter, a prayer as necessary for the successors of Peter through the ages as it was necessary for Peter in those first days of the Church in Jerusalem.
Peter and the Church
The Church is fully entrusted to Peter, but Peter is no less fully entrusted to the Church. The prayer of Christ for Peter continues in the prayer of the Church for Peter; it is the prayer of Christ the Head communicated to His Body, the Church. “Peter therefore was kept in prison. But prayer was made without ceasing by the church unto God for him” (Acts 12:5). Oratio autem fiebat sine intermissione ab ecclesia ad Deum pro eo.
Not by by a Single Page nor by a Single Chapter
Do not think that your prayer is worthless and without effect if it fails to produce the effects that you may desire. The effect of Christ’s prayer for Peter was not a stunning triumph; it was a flood of tears and, in the end, an act of reparation and a confession of love. Do not judge your own life or the life of any man by a single page or a single chapter. Were we to apply such criteria to the Prince of the Apostles, we would not be celebrating his feast today as the Janitor caeli, the Gatekeeper of Heaven (Vespers hymn of the feast, Aurea Luce). Even though, after having read a single page or a single chapter of your life or the life of another, you may be tempted to close the book and pass judgment, wait for the final page to be written. Persevere in reading the book even to the very last line. Believe obstinately in the triumph of grace and, even if you fail to recognise it, know that if a book ends in the shedding of tears, the love of Christ will have had the final word. “Lord, thou knowest all things: thou knowest that I love thee. He said to him: Feed my sheep” (John 21:17).
But there are also many other things which Jesus did; which, if they were written every one, the world itself, I think, would not be able to contain the books that should be written. (John 21:25)